We like to be surprised when we read a short story. When I was a young writer, I thought I needed to come up with plot twists that no one could see coming. One of my writing teachers once told me he always expected that an elephant would eventually appear somewhere in a Lee Martin story—not that a literal elephant ever got space in one of my stories, but you get the idea. I was trying so hard to surprise readers on a plot level, I ignored the source of the most satisfying twists in a story, the ones that come from character.
Another one of my writing teachers always said a surprise should give us more truth than we think we have a right to expect. More truth about people, more truth about the world around us, more truth about ourselves, more truth about what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” To get that kind of truth onto the page, a writer has to be a close observer of human nature, has to be perplexed by it, has to love it, has to have the courage to face it, has to treat it as the precious thing it is.
What can be more valuable than the acceptance of the complexities that reside within a single human being? What can be more honorable for a writer but to go about excavating the contradictions within his or her characters?
Clearly, any character that fits a type—the bully, the angel, the criminal, the miserly, the beneficent—is never interesting for very long. If we meet a character in a story and never have our initial impression of that character challenged by the narrative events to follow, we lose interest because we feel, and rightly so, that we aren’t engaging with a real person. We’re only witnessing an artificial construct of the writer’s making, as if that writer is providing a cardboard cutout of a person, and not the real deal.
As I say above, it takes courage to confront the contradictions within our characters. If we can put them on the page in a way that makes it impossible for the reader to feel completely comfortable with them, then we’re on our way to being able to present surprises that arise from characterization and that lead to the verities and truths that Faulkner referenced. When we meet a character and his or her dramatic situation and the dilemma it presents, we should feel as if that character will never quite fit into any single mold. We should sense that there’s a dimension to the character that will require the events of the story to bring to the surface. The story should be seeming to lean in one direction when all along it’s taking an opposite route.
What are some of the ways that writers create this instability with characters? Sometimes it comes from dialogue. A character says something that seems slightly out of character—perhaps not overtly so, but subtly enough that a reader’s subconscious catalogs it and then refers to it when an event in the narrative makes it more obvious. Writers have to earn their surprises. They have to plant the seeds for what they intend to rise by story’s end. Another way to suggest that a character isn’t completely knowable is through an action or a gesture. An upright man, for example, shoplifts something from a grocery store. What’s that all about? Where did it come from? Such actions eventually require explanation if they’re to be believable. Often a writer will show a character involved in a situation the precedes the surprising action. That way, when that action comes, the reader thinks back to the prior situation and says, “Oh, yes. Of course, that makes sense.” Writers can also use details to create a character’s slipperiness. A killer, for example, keeps a tidy home. The ashtrays are clean, the towels are all folded and put away neatly in the linen closet, the kitchen is spotless, the magazines are nicely stacked in their holder. Such is the case in Andre Dubus’s story, “Killings.” When the grieving father comes seeking revenge for his son’s death, those details, which go against the father’s, and our, expectations, cause a shift in the narrative and in our consideration of the killer and the moral ambiguity that lies at the heart of this story. Surprises in stories are meant to make us think more fully about the people and the situations in which they find themselves involved.
If you’re a writer who can’t create a surprise with a subtle line of dialogue, or a seemingly insignificant action or gesture, or a detail, then you’ll never be able to surprise a reader with a large plot twist. We have to learn to look closely at the small things in people’s living—the words, the actions, the objects—and to trust they’ll take us to whatever truths such things can express. Elephants will have no place in your stories unless you first learn to work with the teacups and the saucers.